Saturday, December 03, 2005

Evolution of Software Claims

Here are some software/computer/information-related patent claims I have stumbled across, with some thoughts on how they have changed over the years, and a sample claim of my own (not filed) that I think anticipates future trends.

Gregory A. Stobbs has, on a number of occasions (for example in his inventively-titled book “Software Patents”), argued that the first software claim was in a patent issued to Samuel Morse in 1840:

“I claim as my invention, the system of signs, consisting of dots, spaces, and horizontal lines, for numerals, letters, words or sentences, substantially as herein set forth and illustrated, for telegraphic purposes.”

However, most 19th century patents relating to information processing tended to have more hardware-oriented claims: Perhaps a typical example would be from one of the Hollerith punched-card patents, no. 395,781, issued in 1889:

6. As an improvement in the art of compiling statistics, the hereinbefore-described method for facilitating the classification of individual records and simplifying the process of computation, which consists in first assigning to each item entering into the proposed series of computations one or more designated points or spaces; secondly, forming a complete record of each individual or subject upon a single card by applying a circuit—controlling index point or points to each space appropriated to or indicative of each separate item in the given series which pertains to the individual or subject, and, finally, feeding said cards successively to an apparatus operated by the index-points on each card to designate the particular division to which it belongs, and depositing each card in a place or receptacle corresponding to the division thus indicated, substantially as described.

US patent 350,748 for a “Perforated Music Sheet” from 1886, allowed multiple instances of the same note to be played at once, claiming:

A perforated music-sheet for a mechanical musical instrument, having its upper or treble notes or perforations duplicated or triplicated, & co., and arranged above or below the regular scale of the music-sheet, for the purpose specified.

This is an interesting example of a patent for machine instructions encoded in a “read-only” memory medium.

Later we began to see claims that had a greater level of abstraction from the particular hardware. As an example, we can look at one of the claims of US Patent 1,244,447 to Patrick Delaney (1917):

5. The method of protecting the secrecy of a telegraphic message which consists in producing a series of signals similar in nature to but constituting reversals of the signals comprising said message.

Or the famous 1919 US Patent 1,310,719 to Vernam:

1. The method of enciphering signals where the characters are represented by a number of periods of different current values which consists in altering the normal code impulses of a character to be transmitted in accordance with a rule represented by some other character in a like code.

Another 1919 US Patent, no, 1,312,572 to R.D. Parker, “Secret Signalling System” claims:

1. In a signal transmitting system, a main line, sending apparatus at one end thereof, receiving apparatus at the other end there of, a ciphering device at the sending end for rendering the signals unintelligible, a deciphering device at the receiving end for reconverting the transmitted impulses into intelligible signals and means for sending impulses over the line for synchronizing the operation of said ciphering and deciphering devices, simultaneously with the transmission of the signal impulses.

Yet another 1919 US Patent, no, 1,320,908 to the same inventor, “Ciphering and Deciphering Mechanism” claims:

1.An apparatus for enciphering and deciphering messages comprising a group of elements adapted to represent successively the characters of the message, a second

group of elements adapted to represent successively a series of ciphering characters and means controlled by the joint effect of said groups of elements for indicating the characters of the enciphered or deciphered message .


4. A mechanism for enciphering or deciphering messages comprising means for representing the message characters by a series of sets of electrical conditions respectively representing the message characters in accordance with a predetermined code, means for concurrently representing a series of ciphering characters by a series of sets of electrical conditions and mechanism under the combined effect of successive sets of electrical conditions in said two series respectively for locally recording the resulting enciphered or deciphered message.

The well-known “ENIAC” patent to Eckhart and Mauchly (3,120,606) filed in 1947, claimed things in terms of “electric pulses” and “data pulses”:

1.Means for producing electric pulses in sequence, electronic means for alternately transmitting certain ones of all said pulses as recurrent differentiated groups, electronic means for selecting particular pulses from one of said differentiated groups to represent quantitative values, electronic means for selecting particular pulses from another of said differentiated groups to represent certain qualitative values, reading means responsive to pulses representing both the qualitative and quantitative values for reading data to he processed upon command of at least one of said qualitative pulses, storing the data thus read, and making the data available in the form of data pulses in response to at least one other of said qualitative pulses, and electronic means for receiving said data pulses and responsive thereto for performing electrical switching operations of a nature determined by selected ones of said qualitative values and of a degree determined by selected ones of said quantitative values.

Another candidate for the world’s “first software patent” was noted by Stobbs, patent number 2,552,629 from 1951:

1. In an information system employing equal length permutation code groups in which element values are characterized by one or the other of two possible signaling conditions, the improvement which comprises means for encoding information into single error-correcting code groups in which each of said single error- correcting code groups has element values differing from the element values of each of the other of said single error-correcting code groups in three or more element positions in a respective element position comparison of each of said single error-correcting code groups, and means for changing the value in any one of the element positions of each of said single error-correcting code groups so that the said element value difference created by said encoding means is maintained if no more than a single element error occurs in each of said single error-correcting code groups.

M.A. Goetz’s patent number 3,533,086 filed in 1969 has often been put forward as the “first software patent”. Claim 10 reads:

For use in a system for automatically controlling a computer having a storage, a processor, an output unit, and control apparatus for controlling the operation of said processor, storage and output unit to perform sequences of operations on blocks of data in the form of coded digital signals in a certain format stored in said storage and representing successive instructions of various types of a computer program including process. unconditional transfer and conditional branch instructions; a method for directing the operation of said control apparatus to process said data blocks sequentially and to produce a record of a flow chart representative of said program, said method comprising:

processing said data blocks successively included scanning predetermined fields of each of said data blocks to establish a flow chart symbol therefor or to reject said data block, respectively, in accordance with different coded signal groups in said fields;

allocating successive ones of said symbols forming a sequence of the computer program as an array and

allocating each of successive ones of said sequences as an array in a section of each of successive flow chart pages;

and producing a record of said symbol arrays in successive flow chart pages in accordance with the allocation thereof.

The Eckhart and Hoover patent number 3,623,007 (1971) has the following claim:

1. In a stored program data processing machine which returns to perform certain routine tasks after performing various other classes of work and which stores the requests to perform each of the various classes of work in hoppers, the improvement comprising means for measuring the time it takes

the machine to return to performing said routine tasks and means controlled by said measuring means for selecting a variable number of work-requesting items to be taken from any of said hoppers at any one time by said machine.

Patent number 3,633,176 from 1972 claims:

1. In a method of operating a digital computer in a network

with one or more user’s remote terminals, wherein a command entered at a terminal controls execution of an indexed file containing a program, the steps of controlling,

a reading of portions of the indexing data in a first file identified by the command,

a reading of data records referenced by said portions of indexing data,

a determination of whether each data record read contains a statement requiring that the statement be replaced by data located in a different file,

a replacement of said statement with the specified data located in said different file when said data record is determined to contain such a statement, and,

a repetition of said replacement step each time a data record is read from any file and determined to contain said statement.

Filed in 1988, David Chaum’s “Returned-value blind signature systems” patent 4,949,380 does not reference any hardware at all in its claim:

1. In a method for transferring value between parties that is based on public-key-digital blind signatures, the improvement comprising the steps of:

diminishing the value of a first blind signature by a first party from an original value to a diminished value;

communicating said diminished value of said first blind signature in a first message to at least a second party by said first party;

communicating a blinded second message to said second party by said first party;

checking the validity of said signature contained in said first message received by at least said second party;

forming by said second party of a second digital signature on said blinded second message received, and the type of second signature formed responsive to the type of signature checked on said first message, and where the relationship between the type of signature checked on said first message and the type of said second signature formed being such that a higher-valued signature checked corresponds to a lower-valued second signature formed; and

communicating by said second party said formed second signature to said first party.

Fast-forwarding to 2005 we find patent publication number 20050222903 “Rendering content-targeted ads with e-mail” (this is one of a large group of pending applications that don’t appear to be assigned to anyone at the moment, but have Google’s fingerprints all over them).

  1. A method for facilitating the serving of advertisements with e-mail content, the method comprising: a) accepting a request for a document including e-mail content; b) generating a request identifier; c) serving the requested document in association with the request identifier; and d) obtaining at least one ad relevant to the e-mail content.

Inspired by these, here is a claim of my own :

1. A method of constructing patent claims designed to prevent insomnia, comprising:

(a) generating a database of words from a dictionary;

(b) presenting these words to a plurality of users;

(c) requesting these users to rank the words in order of their soporific effect;

(d) Selecting a subset of the most soporific words from the database;

(e) Inserting said subset in the claims of a patent application intended to result in an issued patent

(f) Upon issuance of said patent, creating a hyperlink to said patent; and

(g) Presenting the hyperlink to a subject, thereby to sedate, tranquilize, incapacitate, subdue, or stupefy said subject when said subject accesses said hyperlink.

I just hope that this technology doesn't end up classified as a munition.